by John Darnielle, May 2, 2008 10:21 AM
Back when I was a 13-year-old hermit in training, eating lunch either by myself or with a fellow bookworm who was as content as I to silently munch a sandwich while we read, I was a big science fiction fan. To be more precise, I was a big science fiction and fantasy
fan. Terms seemed very important at the time. There were a lot of things I liked about the genre, and plenty of them had less to do with the stories than with the feeling of community that seemed to exist around them: the way the writers talked about each other when they wrote prefaces for one another's books, and the willfully offhanded tone that fans tried to adopt when talking about the objects of their attention. ("Reading last month's Analog
, I'm sure I wasn't the only reader who noticed Ben Bova
winking in Theodore Sturgeon
's general direction throughout his essay on robotics ? what's the story?") But I think the thing that appealed to me most was the drama; the grandeur; the pretentiousness
, which isn't the bad thing we generally make it out to be.
After all, what is the difference between pretentiousness and seriousness? Only a contract between the speaker and the author. People call things "pretentious" in order to put them in their place; if a thing has been conceded to actually occupy a place of seriousness, it's immune from charges of pretension. I'm really suspicious of this process ? it seems cliquish to me. At the same time, though, one has to concede a big difference between the seriousness of heavy hitters like Faulkner or Joyce and the would-be gravitas of stories about dragons that can talk.
Or does one have to make such a concession at all? The question plagues me, not least when I listen to Blackie Lawless's most concentrated bid for seriousness, The Headless Children. This is, plainly put, a badly underrated album: it swings for the fences and connects more often than not. Its mood is half panic, half glee; it has that millennial, apocalyptic grandeur that great metal sometimes gets. Its default rhythm is a rolling-thunder vibe that owes a concealed debt to Adam & the Ants, and its shredded-throat vocals wail scarily atop them like angry train whistles. It has a song in which the singer engages in a "would you die for me?" dialogue with a pitch-shifted interlocutor who is probably supposed to be Satan. In "Forever Free," it has one of the best, most obviously calculated rock anthems to ever fail to galvanize the general public; it's hard to believe this song hasn't been covered by a country artist in recent years. Its one minor hit was a cover of "The Real Me" by the Who.
It is simply magnificent in its pretentiousness. The cover alone announces that it means business: from the mouth of a skull-shaped mountain, amidst faceless hordes, emerge the great monsters of contemporary history: Jim Jones, Lee Harvey Oswald, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan. (I think I also see Sitting Bull amongst them, and I have no idea what he's doing there.) Flames and smoke climb heavenward behind them, though, since they are marching away from the skull-mouth and not toward it, it's hard to say what precisely is going on. There is some barbed wire surrounding the band's logo; heaven knows why.
You have two choices confronted with something like The Headless Children: you can make fun of it, which is what most people will do; it will be noted that I can't really resist the urge to do so, either. But the braver choice, and the one I end up making by time I've been listening for a few songs is to let it take you up; to give yourself over to it and see how it feels. This is the challenge of metal, and its gift to its listeners (and also its central point of contact with fantastic literature): it provides a place for grand lofty half-formed thoughts of vaguely big concepts, just for sake of seeing how they feel. You don't always want to think hard about the evil that men do; sometimes you just want to bask in the wicked light such men's names give off. To get to that light, you need to be willing to invoke big concepts ? evil, death, history, all that jazz. But invoking is enough; go any further, and you're a boring blowhard like your present correspondent, trying to "say something" instead of just letting some images and names loose for the sake of an effect.
But an effect ? a vibe ? a sheen ? is a bigger thing than we think it is, because it's looser and consequently more useful. A big idea coherently stated and well-defended leaves no room for play; the same idea clumsily deployed and gleefully exploited lets the listener keep it for himself. It belongs to the listener, and its truth is non-different from the truth he gets from it. That's what W.A.S.P. were about, whether they thought so or not: making the big gesture and letting it go, and giving to the listeners the gift of their own imagination. This is no small accomplishment. W.A.S.P. deserve better than they've gotten from the world over the years; they won't get it, but that's how it goes, and the fact of it may infuse their masterpiece with a little more of the gravity it audibly wants
by John Darnielle, May 1, 2008 10:17 AM
My narrator in the Master of Reality
book talks at length about Black Sabbath's Born Again
at one point, and when he does so, you're partly young John D. in his idle hours asking himself stupid/important questions like, "Are you really a fan of a band if you like the singer who replaced their 'real' singer better?" I used to spend hours thinking about this sort of thing: are there people who prefer Doug Yule to Lou Reed? Tim "Ripper" Owens to Rob Halford? Annette Olzon to Tarja Turinen? (Sorry, I'm kinda geekin' out at this point.)
Born Again is from the non-Ozzy years, when Sabbath had a revolving-door policy with vocalists. First there was Dio, who helmed the band through Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, and quit or was fired after he did or didn't sneak into the studio at night to raise the level of his vocals in the mix for the live Live Evil. Sabbath auditioned several vocalists and finally settled on Deep Purple's Ian Gillan, and this is where the story gets most interesting to me.
Why? Because at this point in rock history, Black Sabbath has never been less cool. They have a fanbase, so it's not like they're going hungry ? the albums still chart ? but they belong to a different era now. Without either their charismatic original vocalist or his somewhat-known-quantity replacement, they're left hiring a guy who's respected by genre partisans but whose name would elicit an immediate "who?" from casual listeners. Only dedicated Black Sabbath fans are likely to even correctly identify the band playing this music as the Sabs, or to name any of the album's highlights. ("Trashed"; "Zero the Hero"; "Disturbing the Priest"; "Stonehenge.")
In other words, a band which began as the property of their fanbase is gradually returning to its original state. They are also being forced by circumstances ? personnel shifts and changing times ? to adapt, which means that they sound different now. In short, they sound kind of lost, which is the very state of mind that Sabbath's music has always existed to address; and Born Again, therefore, in all its messy glory, is something of a hidden highlight. Sometimes they sound like blues rock on Born Again; sometimes they sound like a late-seventies new wave band with a big budget and some trucker speed.
What emerges from an audibly confused band searching for direction is a pretty dark, cavernous, jittery submarine-ride of an album. Choruses sound pasted hastily onto verses; solos drop in as if recorded on by a different engineer, in a different studio, during a different year and on an entirely different board from anything else on the track; the opening number rhymes "there was no tequila" with "there was no tequila" in a song about crashing an expensive car while drunk. There is a woozy accidental perfection to it; the synth/guitar/SFX interludes on the first side succeed in trying to tie everything together. "Great" albums try to make a coherent statement about something; really great albums, like this one, know that most coherent statements are damned
by John Darnielle, April 30, 2008 10:30 AM
Judas Priest in the '80s made two albums that cemented their reputation among young headbangers: Screaming for Vengeance
and Defenders of the Faith
. Prior to to these two, I knew of them only through seeing shrunk-down images of the album sleeves on the inner linings of other records I had ? I knew they had an album called Rocka Rolla
, which was exactly the kind of album title that turned me off when I was young and grave-minded. Neither KMET nor KLOS, the twin engines of southern California rock radio, played Priest much ? if they did, it went right past me, because I don't remember hearing them in grade school at all, and I listened to the radio every night. All that changed with "You Got Another Thing Comin'," one of the all-time great hard rock singles and a staple of early eighties rock radio.
But Sad Wings of Destiny came out in 1976, and it was well ahead of its time. It seems clear that both the band and the producer had been listening to Roy Thomas Baker's work on the early Queen albums (look at all the ground covered on "The Ripper" ? the stereo panning, the attention to development; listen to the backwards cymbal crash dropped between the first and second verse on "Dreamer Deceiver") and probably also to what Black Sabbath had been up to: the Sabs had been leaning proggy on Volume IV and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and their countrymen in Judas Priest had been taking a few notes.
Neither Queen nor Sabbath, though, had really tried anything quite like Judas Priest attempted on Sad Wings of Destiny: dark little uptempo quasi-biker-rock mini-operas about killers and kings without any love songs to thin the broth. Halford's falsetto, which would inform the entirety of the next decade's metal hopefuls, didn't have the depth of Freddy Mercury's: it was piercing, and producer Jeffrey Calvert didn't try to balance it out. He just let it pierce. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton's twin-guitar work had some similarities to a few FM mainstays, like, say, Thin Lizzy, and it's audible that they've both listened to plenty of Brian May solos; but Thin Lizzy liked to boogie, and Queen was grand. Judas Priest had decided to keep it bleak.
It's the bleakness that makes Sad Wings so great. Search in vain for good-time rock and roll: the songs have titles like "Genocide" and "Island of Domination." There was plenty of darker rock and roll around, for sure ? David Bowie, Lou Reed ? but Judas Priest really let the grey shadows envelop their craft; the minor harmonies giving call-and-response in Tyrant are just plain bummed out. The whole album is like a very violent action movie that opens and closes in limited release on a single weekend.
A whole generation of musicians and fans were hungry for exactly this sort of thing. You wouldn't have known it to read the rock press; there wasn't really room for Judas Priest at the table. Maybe that not-invited-to-the-party aspect of this kind of music is part of what made it appealing to a lot of people. The best moments on Sad Wings of Destiny are opportunities for a subculture to share moments of depth and emotion without having to join in any greater cultural moment. Listening, it's hard to hear who Judas Priest is playing for ? are they reaching for, and missing, the mainstream? No. There were people in houses on every other street who wanted something like this, and by '82 or so, it'd be a little easier to find
by John Darnielle, April 29, 2008 10:37 AM
Well, let's be plain about it: it's overrated. It's not a masterpiece. It's a heavily flawed and highly derivative piece of work. If you'd been a fan of the New York Dolls, or of the Heartbreakers, or even of Hanoi Rocks, you'd already seen the basic blueprints for Guns 'n' Roses.
But. But. But. As much as I think this album boils down to a handful of really solid rock songs and a fair amount of filler, I also think it's a signal moment, and that it makes one of the best arguments for an album being more than the sum of its parts. Because Appetite isn't just the songs on it: it's the historical moment in which it emerged, and the years that followed it. It's the only-comes-along-every-so-often stage presence of Axl Rose, so electric that even the videos from the album conveyed it successfully. Everybody wants to be a star, but not everybody can stand in front of a camera and say with his body: "I am one." You couldn't miss it coming off Axl ? that aura of arrogance, the irresistible reek of entitlement.
The album came out just as I was entering the field of psychiatric nursing and every kid on the ward loved it. It had everything ? anger, disillusionment, the unique wistfulness of youth looking back on itself prematurely and trying to wax reminiscent about it. While Slash may have been an excellent guitarist, the kids to whom Appetite spoke weren't tech heads: they were confused bundles of raw emotion, just like the album itself. Often you'll hear it said of a signal cultural document that it "held a mirror up" to the age, but that's usually a lie: the book or record or movie in question turns out not to be a mirror but a painting of some guy holding a mirror up, comfortably distant from his subject. Appetite, on the other hand, was an honest reflection. It had warts and zits but was still completely infatuated with itself. If light hit it directly, it gave off an intolerable glare that would blind you if you looked at it too long. In other words, it was youth itself. One can no sooner write accurately about it than successfully relive one's own infancy
by John Darnielle, April 28, 2008 10:33 AM
Infernal hails to Portland and all those who breathe its wet air! Maybe some of you reading this haven't actually been
to Powell's. Me, I used to live in Portland. I spent more eight-hour days than I can remember haunting the halls, reading books I couldn't afford cover-to-cover, hunting down old Artaud volumes just to marvel at the cover design.
I was eighteen the year I lived in Portland. It was a fertile time for heavy metal, though a lot of what was going on was strictly under the radar: the music press wasn't reporting much on it except for the obligatory satanic-scare stories, and the cool kids ? the ones people like to call "hipsters" now in order to let you know that they know who the hipsters are ? could not be bothered with it. Celtic Frost played Satyricon that year, but I wasn't twenty-one, so I couldn't get in. Some of the tweakers I hung out with were really into Mercyful Fate, which brings me to the subject of this week's blogging: Five Albums I Might Have Picked Instead of Master of Reality.
When I first thought about pitching a book to Continuum, I wanted to speak for both a style and a population that I didn't think had been fully served yet by the series. Classic rock is well represented; so are the bedrocks of indie and alternative music. Heavy metal books include the MC5 and Guns 'n' Roses ones, but neither of those speak to the demographic I have in mind: the ones you call "underdogs" when you're feeling charitable and "losers" when you don't. It's hard to remember in a post-Osbournes world, but there was a time when Ozzy was a pretty marginal figure; he sold a lot of records, but he wasn't in everybody's living room. If he was an icon, it was only for people who hadn't been invited to the broader cultural buffet.
I share those people's musical taste; I consider myself one of them, though if I go to their parties, I'm usually gonna be the odd man out, and will get called "The Professor" once everybody's sitting around on the couches getting wasted and talking about music or what old TV shows ought to be brought back. I picked Master of Reality because it's a big enough touchstone to have resonance outside of the tribe whose cultural property I consider it to be. There are plenty of other albums that resonated just as strongly for adolescents in the eighties, though, but which for various reasons didn't get the nod from my inner teen psych-ward patient. This week I'll be talking about a few of them.
÷ ÷ ÷
Don't Break the Oath
First and foremost is an album I never heard at all back in the day: Mercyful Fate's Don't Break the Oath. Oh, I heard a little of it ? just enough to get to King Diamond's piercing falsetto, at which point I tuned out. A lot of people tune out when they hear King Diamond's voice. There's never really been anything like it in rock music; Klaus Nomi's voice was in the same ballpark but had a completely different effect.
I used to think a lot about Mercyful Fate because of a particularly difficult evening I once had in Portland, which involved speed freaks colonizing my apartment, commenting ominously on the possible hock value of my stereo, and writing poems ? swear to God ? while seated at my writing desk. The author of the now-all-but-forgotten poem had used a single piece of writing paper, and she'd pressed her ballpoint pen so hard into the paper that the text of the poem was forever impressed into the desk's wooden surface. The poem completed, she had handed it around the room like a child showing off a drawing; I remember everyone reading it without comment. Lots of things pass without comment in the sort of environment I'm describing. The poem was a description of an imagined Mercyful Fate concert.
Normal people did not listen to Mercyful Fate in 1985. Few do now, but fewer did then. They were from Denmark; their singer wore face makeup clearly modeled on the example of Gene Simmons; all their songs were directly about Satan. I was something of a tourist in the scene going on in my apartment that night; come Monday, I'd take the bus to Portland Community College's Sylvania campus. At least one of the several faces I was trying on that year was a mask that didn't really fit me. But I wasn't sure about that yet, and I took note of the band that some nameless speed freak girl had thought to immortalize in verse when she was very, very high: Mercyful Fate. I figured there must be something special about them.
And in fact there is, and part of it is that they belong to their audience. The critics, what few are left, aren't going to one day embrace Mercyful Fate; their sound is too abrasive, their project too ridiculous, their meaning too rough to parse. Are they arrested adolescents getting a kick out of saying that they worship the devil? Are they Judas Priest fans wishing that Priest albums held onto their evil sheen longer than they do? What makes them want to write rock music like this: a sort of perversion of the arena-rock impulse in which the good-time feel of rock is systematically stripped from the basic template, leaving something willfully hollowed-out and almost wholly new? Do they know they're breaking a fair amount of new ground, or are they trying to do something recognizable and, in failing, making something new in the world?
Today I think of Don't Break the Oath as one of the great albums of the '80s ? its riffs never seem to stop coming, and its groove is singular. It no longer sounds as incomprehensible as it once did; the world has caught up with it, or been brought down to its level. Either way is fine by me. The people for whom such an album was made recognized it almost immediately as belonging to them, and were, in one case at least, moved to write odes in praise of it. This occasion has always stuck with me, a sign of something. The ode in question however does not survive. I hope perhaps vainly that its author